Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

On religious safe space

This is some information and responses to something that happened to me recently – probably only of interest if you care about Quaker decision-making and identity politics.

The Albuquerque Friends Meeting sponsored a one-day statewide women’s retreat, which I had signed up for. One of the organizers called me one day before to say that they would not allow transgender people to attend and therefore I could not go. This was the only time I’ve heard of that a person was excluded from a Quaker event simply because of who they were perceived to be – their identity, or the category of person – as defined by others, and was completely unanticipated by me.

First I want to record some of the details and explain why those details are important.

  • The meeting minuted “sponsorship” of the event, but it was not defined what sponsorship meant. The clerk later told me the minute was not “really” sponsorship. Quaker process is supposed to involve a step of confirming a leading in some way, usually by a committee who provides oversight, before bringing something to the whole meeting, but in this case the event organizer brought it directly to the business meeting. One of the functions of oversight is to find the spirit-led way in a conflict situation, and having no oversight means that certain individuals have unquestioned authority over others. Quaker process is the way it is specifically to prevent that, but no such process was followed.
  • The exclusion was unambiguous and the reason was stated outright with no apparent shame; it was as clear as if there was a sign saying “No negroes allowed”. (Today, racism is considered bad form so it gets suppressed and twisted, but transmysogyny is still considered politically acceptable enough to be explicit about it.)
  • I was outed to everyone at the event. The organizer admitted that she outed me to the “leadership” at her initiative. They discussed me and the policy, I gather, for a lot of the retreat. I was also “the topic” at the worship service the next day, I’m told. I question whether anyone feels a need to respect privacy.
  • The “leadership” made the decision according to the organizer. These people have chosen to remain anonymous. No report was made of their decision or the ensuing discussion. I want to note that this is one way that power distribution works among Friends.
  • The actual call went like this: the organizer called to elicit whether I was coming, as if making an open-ended inquiry. After I confirmed I was coming, which I had already confirmed before, she told me I was banned. Had I said I couldn’t go, it felt like she would have backed out of telling me that. This was really the only evidence of possible shame.
  • It was suggested to me that it was reasonable to enact an exclusion policy while it was being discussed, because the situation was new, and it was reasonable to exclude the person in question from the discussion. So I’m wanting to make clear that this line of thinking exists among Friends – the assumption that we exclude first as a baseline policy, and then when something new happens, we optionally include at our discretion. This tells us that inclusion would be a change. The dominant group was assumed to have automatic permission to attend while the queer person was assumed to require special permission.
  • On the very same day as all this occurred, the organizer pressured me to attend an in-person meeting and had already arranged people to be present who were supposed to support me. This very much had the flavor of trying to de-escalate the problem by assuaging feelings, and even sweeping it under the rug. She and one other person relayed to me that meeting with them was urgent. The urgency was apparently false because none of them ever left me a voice mail or email saying what was so urgent.
  • In the next few days I received a couple statements saying that the situation was not as extreme as I might suspect. I guess the argument is that although one person was excluded from one thing, it’s not a general policy and therefore it doesn’t really matter, or perhaps it didn’t really happen.

Before I heard about all this, I had already become very leery of the Quaker practice that some people in power have of sweeping things away by having closed-door meetings to resolve specific situations, using secrecy to maintain their positions, and ignoring the overall structure of privilege. As everything in this incident fit that pattern so well, so I was able to recognize it as such while it was unfolding.

For me, a lot of places are uncomfortable – night clubs, churches and other socially complex places are the most difficult. At meeting, I’ve often been cornered and lectured at in a way that is deeply disturbing of my sense of boundaries. It is the worst when the person sees me as queer and is using me to process their guilt or tell me about the other person they know who is like me. So many “conversations” start out with the other person telling me what I think, who I am, what I’m going through and so on. People have presumed to discuss my “identity” and ask about my sex life in public. The prying and judgments that fly around are just not safe for me. The level of invasive digging is noticeably more among Quakers than other people.

However, I don’t do anything about it because those are just individual people, probably trying their best. My typical response is to shut down and become fake on the surface. I never questioned before whether the space was actually safe; I just assumed it was supposed to be welcoming to everyone, and any problem I experienced was a defect in me. Not feeling safe or welcome has been so ingrained in me that I haven’t really done anything to protect myself. In the past when there were traps set, like closed-door reconciliation meetings, I would have cowered and fallen for it. I would have felt guilty for being who I am and causing other people so much grief. I’ve been in spaces that are declared safe for marginalized people and they have policies in place to protect. I had always assumed until this incident that Quaker spaces could not be like that, and had never allowed myself to imagine what a Quaker safe space would feel like. But now that it feels beyond uncomfortable there, it feels possible to wonder what it would be like if it were really safe.

I wasn’t expecting to be in the position of Rosa Parks. She had a support network and I don’t; there’s possibly no one else like me there, so there’s no parallel to a bus boycott; also there’s not a sustained effort to segregate on a large scale. It’s only similar in how it feels: being presented with a decision of whether to fight it, leave, or capitulate. All three options are too easy. The third option of capitulating would mean to reduce the significance, chalk it up to a “misunderstanding”, and keep the power balance as it is, essentially pretending nothing happened. The third option is what I’m being pressured to do, but my intuition is that the third option is the one that is most wrong.

The fact that I’m getting pressure to act tells me that my actions matter. I’ve been reading and meeting autistic women who talk about political things like this a lot recently, and I’ve developed a stronger sense of self respect through that. I know I’m OK and deserve to be included equally, so there’s peace in that. The in-group at the meeting may dissect me among themselves, and they may tell me their conclusions some day. I don’t know if they will show their pain, but whatever they do, it feels very separate from me. I am OK about parting ways if those people can’t move on. Since I didn’t do anything, there’s no need for me personally to do anything to fix what was done. I feel grounded in truth the most when resisting the pressure to act.


When a prevalent attitude shifts, some people are left behind. For example, even though many racist laws have been reversed and youth are moving beyond racism, some people will go their death clinging to their racism. Those people are very uncomfortable to be run over by history. So I think any movement in attitudes is going to be uncomfortable if it is real. It’s more important to take a stand with truth than to make people comfortable and we can’t have both.

Since the question came up for me whether Quaker spaces could ever be safe spaces for marginalized people, I’m going to try to put language on that from a religious point of view.

Drawing from the practice of a women’s group I was in 25 years ago, we had the core rule that no one could define the experience or the identity of another person. No one could erase or out another person. If someone called the process into question, particularly if they were naming privilege, the power issues were dealt with first. I remember how the protection for equality and inclusion was so strongly felt and the responsibility to uphold those values in practice was shared so energetically. People would speak up when something was not OK – if the safe space was being violated in some way, and they were not polite about it. For example, if someone started to say something that was not upholding those values (something unintentionally racist for example), more than one other person would instantly call them on it, and it was corrective without shame or making them the enemy. People were even called on negating their own experience. You couldn’t get away with saying “I don’t matter here”.

This kind of group dynamic seems to be in other places, such is with Occupy Wall Street, but I haven’t had a chance to be around it much. Ironically I think that Quakers might have been part of building that type of consciousness, but now it’s pretty foreign, at least to my meeting. I feel that at root it is religiously motivated.

What would a Quaker minute on inclusion look like? Maybe it could include some principles. A fundamental principle for me is about defining groups: Although people create hard lines between so-called races, genders, and other differences, this process of social construction is done for political purposes, not because of any truth in it. Anthropologists know there are no lines between these constructed groups and it is time that the rest of us learn that. I don’t mean to say there aren’t differences between people, but that there are no hard categorical lines. I think if we can believe that principle to the core, a lot happens.

When we believe that, we do not have the urge to other people and say “they”; we would understand and speak from the knowledge that we are all one.

There could be a policy that says we will not out, other, erase, or define people. If we had the policy and really believed it, we would not be able to hold meetings where you had to be perceived to be a particular kind of person to be able to attend. But I don’t think that means we wouldn’t be able to have a retreat for women, or for men, or natives or whatever. There’s a power in communing with like people, particularly because you can express something that isn’t a dominant way of being or communicating, and the other people there already know how it feels and can be supportive in a way that goes beyond what can be achieved in mixed group of everyone. That magic does not come from the act of othering, though. A women’s group doesn’t achieve that power simply because they decided who’s in and who’s out. It comes from the shared responsibility for creating a safe space in which people are not defined, but are free. It could happen that an identity type of group is meeting and someone shows up who doesn’t really share the identity and may be unaware from privilege and may violate the safe space. But then their actions would be called out in real time, and that active protection of the safe space is the source of power.

There could also be a practice that “support” is defined by the person being supported, not by the person trying to dump support onto someone else. We should know the difference between support, which is requested, and eldering, which usually is not.

I sometimes wonder if there is a community sitting in the shadows assuming that they don’t count and that some “elder” probably knows best, and I wonder if this community might be ready to rise and protect these principles in practice.

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